Originally Appeared on RoleReboot.org.
I frequently find myself thinking ‘If only you were born now,’ while working with middle-aged gender variant people. The few times I actually say it out loud, it’s painfully clear how unhelpful it is. A few days ago I found myself trying to explain the concept “genderqueer” to a married, middle-aged natal male who currently identifies as transgender. He was saying he feels part male and part female, not female enough to start hormones or have re-assignment surgery and transition, but not male enough to continue to pass as male. I recall saying something along the lines of “all the college kids are doing it.”
To at least a certain subset of 20 year-olds, this man’s problem wouldn’t be perceived as a problem at all. Identities including ‘both male and female,’ ‘neither male nor female,’ ‘third gender,’ ‘non-gendered,’ and ‘androgynous’ have become increasingly easy for young people to conceptualize. “Oh, you’re just genderqueer,” I can imagine them saying. But how does one come out as genderqueer at fifty? How does one explain to spouses, colleagues, children and other relatives who have never considered identities outside the gender binary? There would be very real and potentially serious social consequences to coming out for this person.
Even if I could bring him on a fieldtrip down to a local gender studies department or campus LGBT alliance to see first-hand what a genderqueer identity might look like, his peers would still lack any exposure to this concept. Many adults are still struggling with the idea homosexuality, and most would have a difficult time really understanding transgender identity. But at least the ‘one-gender-trapped-in-the-body-of-the-other’ idea fits into the gender binary most people are used do, as does attraction to the opposite gender. Genderqueer is an identity which demands thinking way outside the box, calling into question the very concept of gender as we know it.
Even for those transgender folks who have transitioned, there is sometimes a level of generational envy. I have often heard transgender individuals fantasizing about how things might have been different if they were born now, with the availability of hormones, surgical advancements, and the increased awareness of transgender children and teens. Kids now have the option of intervening early enough that puberty never steals their chances of passing as their identified gender.
College is, after all, the perfect time to formulate one’s identity. Had this middle-aged man experimented with transgender and genderqueer identities in college and chosen/begun his career and long-term partnership already identifying as such, his life would be very different. College is a safe place and time in which one’s peers are also, in their own ways, testing out different identities. But, as a wise supervisor of mine frequently says, “one can only choose from among the culturally available identities.” For most of the middle-aged people I work with, transgender and genderqueer were not a part of the cultural landscape yet when they were adolescents.
A few months ago I attended an Occupy Wall Street rally in New York City. A beautiful, confidant young woman took her place at the “human microphone” in order to speak. She began by saying, “I am a black, pansexual woman.” I remember distinctly the pang of envy I felt. Fifteen years ago I was a gender studies major (back when it was still called women’s studies). I lived in the gay dorm and hung out with the least gender conforming kids on campus. But I had never heard of “pansexual” until a few years ago. It might not have taken me until my 30s to solidify my queer identity if I had.
For me, the labels that existed when I was in college didn’t quite fit. In retrospect, this was because they all fit into that traditional gender binary. Lucky for me, dating men and passing as straight fit my identity well enough. I had the privilege of putting the knowledge I was queer on the back burner until an identity that fit me better was imagined by our culture.
For others, the feelings of being gender variant are so profound and all-encompassing that life simply cannot go on, at least not without suffering and struggle. I believe this is why so many parents are working to open up space for their children to explore minority sexual and gender identities. Once that stage in life when our identities are naturally in flux has passed, there is no way to get that time back.
I often wonder what my life would look like right now if I had had pansexual Identity on my radar in college. It might look exactly the same, but have simply feel more authentic for longer. Despite my envy, I am deeply encouraged by and utterly respectful of the kids that are coming up now. They are fundamentally re-thinking gender and opening up space for fuller and richer lives for those who don’t fit easily within the gender binary (and really, for everyone).
That said, we always need to be looking forward, making more space, thinking further outside the box. There are children growing up right now who will live their whole lives in silent desperation because they fit identity categories the culture has yet to offer.
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